Wed, Feb 27, 2019 - Page 9 News List

If news is dying, who will safeguard democracy?

When the modern news industry began 200 years ago, it grounded the world in fact. Now faith, localism and entertainment rule

By Hossein Derakhshan  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Journalism has joined the list of endangered professions: teaching it appears to be more lucrative than doing it. A great deal of brilliant and high-quality journalism is still being pursued around the world every day, but the news industry is steadily shrinking. Why is that?

Let us make a distinction here between journalism and news. News is only one of the many kinds of journalistic output. News as a standardized, non-fiction literary form was invented more than 200 years ago in response to very specific social and cultural conditions, and was ignited by a new technology called the telegraph.

The invention of the electric telegraph in the 1830s allowed the fast and international transmission of bursts of information in short, staccato messages, which were, ironically, not unlike tweets.

The telegraph brought news of elections, wars, disasters, crimes, weddings and deaths to people’s kitchen tables; it was how the world found out about the assassination of former US president Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

The arrival of instant news transported the middle class from a local perspective to a global one, from a generalized view of the world to one full of specifics, and from a world centered on fiction to one grounded in fact. News became how the middle class positioned itself in the expanding wider world and claimed a distinct cultural identity. This hunger for news was a cultural response to a prevailing sociopolitical environment.

Today, nearly every one of those cultural conditions has changed. So, if the context of what we called “news” for nearly two centuries has radically altered, is news still functioning as it should? What is its role supposed to be, and what purpose is it fulfilling? Is news still relevant at all?

We all know that today the news industry is in trouble. Weekday circulation for US daily newspapers, print and digital combined, fell to 35 million in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center — the lowest circulation since 1945, despite the population nearly tripling during those 70-plus years.

This year began with 1,000 job losses at once-burgeoning digital journalism ventures BuzzFeed and Huffington Post. News businesses have been grappling with imploding business models for more than a decade.

New Internet technologies empowered new players — mainly Google and Facebook — that have claimed control of distribution and the advertising revenue that goes with it.

Meanwhile, inspired partly by US President Donald Trump, politicians from Myanmar to Libya and from Syria to Spain now openly attack reporters, calling them “fake” or “biased,” accusing them of twisting reality.

The public, meanwhile, sees journalists as too soft on power or too close to the wealthy and do not trust what they perceive as conflicts of interest.

It is true that some serious news organizations have recently seen increases in paid subscription services. The New York Times has claimed to have nearly doubled its number of subscribers to 3.5 million.

Thanks to its reader funding model, the Guardian has received financial support from more than 1 million readers around the world.

However, subscriptions do not directly equate to readership; it is valuable regular income, but how many stories do subscribers read beyond the headline news? And how many renew their subscriptions? And is it, in the US at any rate, a temporary anomaly, a “Trump bump” of people who regard the cost as a monthly fee of the anti-Trump resistance?

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